A Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat
by Rabbi Avi Weiss
Shabbat Parshat Vayeshev
20 Kislev 5758
Why does Reuven do all within his power to prevent the
sale of Yosef?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of blessed memory once suggested that the answer lies in an
analysis of a Midrash dealing with Reuven having relations with his father Jacob's wife
Bilhah. (Genesis 35: 22)
According to the Midrash, he did not actually commit this deed. Rather, "when Rachel
died Jacob took his bed which was placed regularly in the tent of Rachel...and placed it
in the tent of Bilhah. Reuven came and resented the insult to his mother and said, if my
mother Leah was subordinate to Rachel, must she also be subordinate to Rachel's handmaid?
Therefore, he disarranged [Jacob's bed by moving it to Leah's tent]." (Rashi) Still,
the Torah considers this action to be so heinous as if Reuven actually had relations with
On its face, the Midrashic understanding of the sentence is difficult. After all Reuven's
sin seems minor. His intention was to show respect to his mother.
It is here that Rav Soloveitchik notes that every act has two elements. First, the act
itself , and second, its consequences. At times, an action may seem innocuous but
its impact may be great. In this instance, from the perspective of the deed itself,
Reuven had done little wrong. However, the consequence of the deed was the showing of
disrespect to his father and an indication to his brothers that Jacob could be challenged.
Hence, Reuven takes the lead in protecting Yosef as he views himself responsible for the
brothers being brazen enough to challenge their father by selling his favorite son.
No wonder then, after Yosef was sold Reuven rends his garments and declares
"the child is not [there]. And as for me, whither shall I go?" (Genesis
37:29,30) Thus Reuven feels personally responsible for having planted the seeds that
precipitated the sale.
I remember clearly the Rav bringing his analyisis to a
crescendo with his famous expression,"and I'll clinch it." He did this by
pointing out that Reuven was not present during the sale. And Rashi, wondering where he
was, notes the Midrash which states that Reuven "was occupied with his
sackcloth and his fasting because he had disarranged the couch of his father."
(Rashi, Genesis 37:29) In other words, Reuven understood that he needed to fast for that
wrong, as it was the cause of his brother's disrespect. The message is clear: we
must be careful with every deed. A deed, in and of itself, may be minor, but its impact
may have unexpected ramifications.
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